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Tropical wine carves out a niche for itself in Venezuela
Wines & Vines / May 2002

By Larry Luxner

CARACAS -- In a country full of hard-core rum, beer and whisky drinkers, it hasn't been easy to get people to appreciate the subtleties of wine.

But Bodegas Pomar C.A., established 16 years ago by Venezuela's Empresas Polar and French vintner Maison Martell, is slowly succeeding.

Oscar Quintero, Pomar's director since 1996, says last year's revenues came to $6 million -- including $4 million from its own home-grown labels and $2 million in sales of the 24 imported brands Pomar represents.

And while $6 million is a minuscule drop in the bucket compared to the $2.6 billion in sales generated last year by parent company Polar, Bodegas Pomar has been able to capture a 10% share of the Venezuelan wine market, whose size is estimated at 750,000 cases, excluding contraband. Pomar now ranks as the single best-selling wine in Venezuela.

"Even though the competition is tough, I think we've been very successful," Quintero said in a recent interview in Caracas. "The vineyards are mature, and they're producing more aromatic flavors, so we can produce more diversified wine."

According to historical records, the first vine was planted on Venezuelan soil in 1515, by Franciscan monks who settled on the banks of the Río Manzanares. Their mission did not last long, however, because most of the monks were slaughtered by local indigenous tribes.

In 1578, Don Juan de Pimentel, in his well-known book "Relación Geográfica y Descripción de la Provincia de Caracas y Gobernación de Venezuela," wrote about grapes being produced three times a year in Caracas. Other reports of that time speak of vineyards in the valley of El Tocuyo and the highlands of Barquisimeto. By the end of the 17th century, grapes were being harvested on Margarita Island, according to historian Don Juan de Castellanos.

Yet Venezuela never became a major wine producer because traditionally, the need for big temperature variations and exacting soil conditions has always limited the large-scale production of fine wine to locations at least 30 degrees north of the equator, or at least 30 degrees south of the equator. That worked fine for countries like Argentina, Chile or South Africa, but not tropical nations like Venezuela, which by the early 1980s was producing about a million cases of wine annually from imported concentrated must.

Things began changing in 1986, when Polar and Martell joined forces and founded Pomar -- billed as the first enterprise to produce wine on a commercial scale in Venezuela, made from grapes of its own vineyards planted in Altagracia, in the state of Lara.

"Painstaking research, demanding field work and up-to-date equipment on a sufficiently large scale made it possible for Pomar to produce quality wines which, despite eliciting skeptical disdain in the beginning, ended by winning a place on the tables of many Venezuelans," says a company brochure.

Pomar developed its vineyards based on years of research by two Venezuelan educational institutions, the Centro de Desarrollo Vitícola Tropical in Zulia state, and the Grape Institute of the Universidad Centro Occidental Lisandro Alvarado in Lara state.

Finally, after grafting French and Spanish grape varieties onto local Caribbean rootstock with the help of French experts from Domaines Cordier, Pomar selected six varieties of red wine for commercial exploitation -- Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (Bordeaux), Syrah and Mourvedre (Cotes du Rhone), Tempranillo and Garnacha (Rioja) -- and five varieties of white wine: Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (Bordeaux), Chenin Blanc (Val de Loire), Macabeu (Penedés) and Molvoisie (Languedoc Roussillon).

The first label Pomar came out with was Viña Altagracia (rosé, white and red). It then introduced Pomar Reserva -- which is aged in oak barrels for a little over a year, and in bottles for another two years.

In 1992, Pomar won a gold medal for its white Viña Altagracia Blanco at the VII World Wine Congress in Brussels, and a bronze medal for its red Viña Altagracia Tinto, at the Challenge International du Vin Blaye-Bourg in Bordeaux. Half a dozen more medals have followed for Pomar in ensuing years.

"It's the only tropical winery in Venezuela, and was the first one in the world," says Lorenzo Mendoza, president and CEO of Empresas Polar, which is Venezuela's largest privately held company and commands an 80% share of the country's beer market. "The market for wine has shrunk, though, due to decreased purchasing power in Venezuela. We compete basically against imports from Argentina and Chile, and they get all kinds of support from their governments."

A much more basic problem for Pomar is that, unlike the Argentines, Venezuelans have never been big wine drinkers; it's simply not a part of the culture. According to Quintero, per-capita wine consumption is just 0.28 liter per year. On the contrary, the country's 24 million inhabitants do guzzle beer and whisky -- to the point where Venezuelans are among the highest per-capita consumers of whisky in the world.

To change consumer habits, Quintero two years ago launched Club Pomar. Some 2,000 members pay an average 30,000 bolívares (about $40) to participate in cocktails, tastings and other gatherings that promote knowledge of wines in general, and of course Pomar products in particular.

"Our challenge is to convince Venezuelans to accept that we have a wine that could compete with any wine in the world," he said. "But with low prices in the market, it's very difficult for us to be competitive. Almost half of the market is imported Chilean wines, and it's increasing all the time, because there's a free-trade agreement between our two countries and therefore they don't pay any import taxes."

Despite the low cost of imported Chilean wine here, he says "in general Chilean wines are great. In Chile, the base is cabernet and chardonnay. Here, we have syrah, tempranillo and moscatel. The grapes we're producing and the flavors we make are different, since we're tropical. That's what makes the difference."

In fact, Pomar represents Couciño Macul and Montes, both Chilean wines, along with other brands including Louis Roederer Burt Premier champagne and Louis Jadot red wine.

Quintero, a cousin of Mendoza, is a 43-year-old veterinarian by profession; he joined the Polar conglomerate 15 years ago, working in both the snack and banking divisions before being named to head Pomar.

Quintero says Pomar is currently producing wine in three distinct categories. The first is champagne under the Pomar Brut label; currently at 15,000 cases, Quintero aims to increase that to 20,000 cases this year. The second category is premium wines under the Pomar Reserva, Selection, Syrah and Tempranillo labels; now at 5,000 cases, the goal is to double that to 10,000.

But the largest category by far is Viña Altagracia, which will total 50,000 cases this year; in addition, Pomar produces a few thousand cases of cooking wine under the Solariego label, as well as 2,500 cases of sweet Moscatel wine used by the Catholic church for consecration services.

Pomar's wines are produced at two bodegas nestled in the foothills of Venezuela's Sierra de Baragua mountains: Altagracia, containing 80 hectares of vineyards, and Bucarito, containing 45 hectares. At peak season, the company employs 120 people. The vineyards are located near the quaint town of Carora, in Lara state, roughly 100 kilometers west of the city of Barquisimeto.

"The area is 400 meters above sea level and has an extremely good acquifer," said Quintero. "There is more than 30 degrees' variation in temperature between day and night. Because it's arid, we have no fungus problems, and the soil drains well. One of Pomar's unique properties is that it's one of the few vineyards to have two harvests a year -- our wines are dated March and September."

According to Francisco González, Pomar's former general manager, "practically all countries at least 30 degrees north or 30 degrees south of the equator are wine producers, but in between those extremes you'll find Venezuela. These days, with the discovery of stainless steel, you can theoretically produce wine in many countries because you have better chamber control. In summer, the temperature hits 35 degrees C., making it impossible to control fermentation without air-conditioning. At night, temperatures in the Sierra de Baragua drop to 22 degrees. This is necessary to fix the sugar content of the grapes."

"We have it determined perfectly," continued González, who spent 19 years in the marketing department of Seagram's. "In October, we have big showers, but they last only a few days. During this time, grapes are hibernating. With the control of water, we can produce a false autumn and get two crops."

Pomar says that "under tropical conditions, buds sprout up, shoots intertwine and superior grapes grow to produce musts of optimum quality."

Once clarified, this must is sent to fermentation tanks. The grape skins are not removed, thus taking advantage of their natural coloring and tanning elements. In the case of Pomar Reserve, the must is processed in French oak wood barrels. Rosé wines are handled the same way, but the must is filtered in order to eliminate the skin as soon as the desired tint has been achieved; it is then left to complete the fermentation process.

Apart from its winery in Lara state, Pomar operates a large retail outlet at its company headquarters in Caracas, not far from the brewery that produces Polar beer. Prices for Pomar's products vary, though the best bargains can be found on tax-free Margarita Island, where a bottle of Viña Altagracia costs only 1,700 bolívares (about $2.25 at current exchange rates).

Even so, the wine market has been dramatically hurt by Venezuela's precarious economic situation. Low world prices for crude oil, Venezuela's main foreign-exchange earner, have combined with political instability caused by the populist policies of now-unpopular President Hugo Chávez. The result has been a precipitous drop in purchasing power among ordinary Venezuelans -- a factor that's hurt not only Pomar but rum distillers, whisky importers and nearly the entire private sector.

In the meantime, Quintero says he's focusing his efforts on domestic wine sales, and that -- except for some minor promotions among Venezuelans living in South Florida -- his company is virtually ignoring potential overseas markets for now.

"We don't export yet," said Quintero. "First of all, we need to consolidate the market in Venezuela. Secondly, our export market would have to be in premium wines, and we don't have sufficient grapes for that."

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